Universities in England have made substantial progress in recent years – increasing the proportion of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education to record levels.
But they are certainly not complacent about the gaps in attainment, access and outcomes that remain between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds – the gap in the former exists before children even start school, and grows over each Key Stage.
Working collaboratively with schools was recognised by the Social Mobility Advisory Group (SMAG) as key here, and more recently universities' access agreements for 2018 – 19 collectively show that a significantly increased focus on work to raise attainment in schools is to come.
Cast your mind back to last December and you will remember the previous government's schools green paper, which set out a proposal in this space asking universities to commit to sponsor or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees. The proposal then reappeared in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2017, but the spotlight dimmed somewhat post-election.
Universities UK, meanwhile, has always been clear that there is no one-size-fits-all way of achieving this complex ambition. Indeed, a significant strength of current university-school engagement is the flexibility that both partners have to tailor interventions and partnerships to suit the local context and need. This is also critical for building relationships, which are in turn crucial to the success of university and school collaboration.
Today, we've published a booklet that sets out some of the work that is already taking place between universities and schools across the country to raise pupil attainment, including:
Preserving this kind of flexibility of arrangements will be key to meeting shared objectives of raising standards across schools, removing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, and promoting student success.
Of course, this landscape also includes the school sponsorship model – which evidence suggests can be effective in some circumstances, and which government has today set out at our conference with an expectation that more universities will come forward to be involved in.
Significantly, government also told delegates today that support need not be limited to this specific form of partnership, being clear on the possible benefits of broader forms of partnership working (many of which are already taking place) – this is a welcome development.
With the introduction of the Office for Students approaching, whether it be the establishment of a new school; supporting subject-specific departments; the provision of teaching at A-Level; the development, enrichment and design of school curriculums; or offering CPD and other training opportunities to help develop the skills of the schoolteacher workforce, in order to maximise the contribution of university-school partnerships in the future: